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Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent

You know the scene: A Sunday school classroom. Half a dozen children sitting on chairs around a table. A grown-up sitting with them on a chair much too small passing out all the ingredients for the day's object lesson: walnuts, nutcrackers, colored pencils, slips of paper the size of those you find in a fortune cookie, and, of course, glue, lots of glue. The nuts must be carefully cracked so that they open right along the little seam.

Each child needs to have two complete half shelves that fit perfectly together. The children take the nuts out of the shells and put them in a bowl in the middle of the table.

On a slip of paper each child copies down exactly what the grown-up said: Capital "J," lowercase "o," "h," "n," the number "3," a colon, two periods standing on top of each, and the number "16." John 3:16.

Then comes the tricky part: putting glue along the edge of the shell halves, not too much, not too little, placing the slip of paper half inside the shell, half out, with its message showing, and finally pressing the two shell halves together. The children hold their shells while the glue dries, and the grown-up opens the Bible to John 3:16, shows the children the passage, and reads:

"For God so loved the world that God gave the only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

"This is the Gospel in a nutshell," the teacher says. If you want to say in a few words how God loves us, or if you need to remind yourself of the Good News of Jesus, you can always repeat these words:

"For God so loved the world that God gave the only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish by may have eternal life."

"This is a very good verse to know by heart," the teacher says, "because it's the very best part of God's story."

One child looks down at the heaping pile of nuts in the center of the table, then at his sticky walnut shell, then up at the teacher. "How can this be the very best part?" he asks, waving his empty, gluey shell with its little tag sticking out. "We've taken out the part you can eat!"

The Gospel in a nutshell. That's what Martin Luther called John 3:16. His phrase is oft repeated. The verse is much beloved. Perhaps you, like I, know it by heart and repeat it to yourself in times of worry, doubt or fear. But what does it mean?

Let's look closely at John 3:16, word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, as if cracking the nut of this beloved verse, in order to receive the gift of life it promises. Maybe we will hear the very best part of God's story, and maybe we also will be given something we can sink our teeth into, something delicious that we can eat!

The verse starts with God. The subject of the sentence is God. God the first subject. God the first speaker whose Word brings forth light into darkness. God the first breather whose breath quickens life. God the first mover who in the beginning set the planets spinning and made a billion stars to dance.

How often we get this part mixed up, thinking we are the prime movers. We love the stories of the so-called self-made man, the one who pulls himself up by his own boot straps and makes a name, a fortune, a life for himself. We'd like to think that we have the power to make things happen and get things moving with our own ingenuity, hard work or creativity. Just do it, the ad says as if a little encouragement was all it would take for us to wake up one day and remake our lives or change the world. But John 3:16 puts things in proper order: We are not self-made, we are God-created and God-sustained. We are not the prime movers, even of our own destiny. As it was from the beginning, so it is now, God acts first. Always and forever, first God.

And what does God do according to the Gospel in a nutshell? Love. It's a verb here not a noun. The verb most often used in John's Gospel. The verb that best expresses all that God does, not God rules, judges, or condemns, nor even God creates, heals or protects but God loves and everything else God does flows from this perfect loving.

God loved. Those two little words make a sentence, complete and true, but this sentence has an object, because God's love has an object, a focus, an intended recipient: The world, kosmos in the Greek. Now listen carefully here, because we often get this part mixed up, too. So often we think, "If I'm good and kind and obedient, then God will love me. When I am lovable, then God loves me." As if being loved were a reward for good behavior or a carrot held out by God to lead us down the paths of righteousness. But this is not what the Gospel tells us.

God loves not only those who are faithful and just, trusting and kind, not only those who are easy to love, those whom we love or who love us in return, but God loves all that God has made: the whole world, the whole wide, wonderful, beautiful, battered, fragile, fractured, rebellious, resplendent world. God loves the world, including you, including me. The next little clause is important. Sometimes the phrase is translated God loved the world in this way, sometimes God so loved the world, or God loved the world so much that. However it is translated it means that God's love for the world evokes another verb, another action.

God's love isn't a cozy feeling or a warm disposition. It is an active, creative force. Like God's Word that spoke Light into darkness, God's love makes things happen, wondrous things, surprising things. For God so loved the world that God gave.

It should be no surprise to us that God's loving evokes giving and calls generosity into being. The stories of our faith reveal this time and again. Love called forth a world resplendent with gifts enough to nourish and sustain all things living. Love placed human beings in relationship to one another that they might learn to cherish, love and give as God does. Love gave Abraham and Sarah the gift of the son Isaac and promised them children outnumbering the dancing stars. Love called the Children of Israel out of Pharaoh's Egypt, led them, fed them, and tended them each day of their forty-year journey to the promised land. Love sent prophets to the people to speak a word of warning and sing a song of comfort. Love it was that brought the people home from exile. From the beginning it has been the nature of God's love to give extravagantly, to lavish compassion upon the world, to spend the whole fund of grace upon the beloved.

God's giving is not only extravagant, but expensive. Costly. In the fullness of time, God gave what was dearest and most treasured, the only begotten Son, the beloved One who had been with God from the beginning. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14a). Jesus came to live among us, to make his home with humankind, and to invite us and all people to make our home with him.

Living among us, Jesus revealed to the world the very heart of God, a heart brimful of love for the world. Welcoming the woman at the well and offering her living water, feeding the hungry multitude with bread and with God's presence, healing the man who sat paralyzed beside the pool, bringing sight to the one born blind, grieving with Mary and Martha at the death of their only brother, calling Lazarus from the tomb into light and life, and kneeling to wash the feet of the disciples: in each of these moments Jesus opens to us a picture of God's loving, giving heart. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's bosom, who has revealed God to us.

But more than this: When God loves, God loves to love's fullness, to love's end. When God gives, God withholds nothing. God gives the only Son into the hands of the world, into our hands. Jesus is misunderstood, feared, rejected, despised, and abused. Jesus is lifted up. Like the serpent was lifted upon a pole in the wilderness when the Children of Israel were being bitten and killed by poisonous snakes, so Jesus is lifted up. His throne is the crucifixion tree, his crown the piercing thorns.

Jesus becomes a sign-- opening to us the very heart of God: A heart not only brimful of love for the world, but wounded and breaking, too. Jesus crucified reveals the depth of God's love, the self-emptying, suffering love of God, love that pours itself out, giving everything. God loves the world so very much that God gave, even unto suffering and death, the only begotten and most beloved Son.

Why? Why would God give so much? For us and for our lives. So that we who are acting as if we are the center of the universe might waken to the love of God that is at the center of all things and be drawn back into a right relationship with God, living as grateful creatures of a loving Creator.

So that we who have fallen in love with the darkness, will be drawn into the light and our closed and blinded eyes will be opened again to the wonders of the world and to its wounds.

So that we who are still full of rebellion and anger and fear, while we are yet choosing the ways of death rather than life, turning our backs on God, closing our hearts to one another, refusing to receive the grace that is given-- so that we, even while we are dying, may not perish, but have eternal life.

Jesus lifted upon the crucifixion tree reveals the wideness of God's mercy. With his arms outstretched upon the cross, he reveals the breadth of God's embrace. Jesus draws all things to himself, the whole world that God created and so loves.

Jesus is placed in a tomb, sealed and airless, that he might enter also the tombs we build out of fear and envy, arrogance and greed. And on the third day the seal of death is broken. Like a nut being cracked the tomb is opened. As in the beginning God speaks light into the darkness, and breathes life into the places of death and defeat. Once again God creates community out of fearful isolation. God lifts Jesus up into life that even death cannot overcome.

Jesus is lifted up on the crucifixion tree and lifted out of the tomb of death in order that we, too, might be lifted up: Lifted out of our despair into hope, out of our isolation into friendship and community, lifted out of the web of evil deeds we spin, out of the self-centered, self-serving worlds we create, into God's own life, a life rich in mercy, full of kindness, and quickened by immeasurable grace. Life. Life abundant, life unending, life given as a gift of grace and received by faith, life shared with God and with one another.

This life is given not only as a gift in the world to come, but in this world, in the ordinary places where you and I live and work and serve and play. Life with God is not a gift to be opened only in the future, but has been opened for us now, today. We are freed by God's love from the power and fear of death, freed from the need to create and control our worlds. We are freed to live here and now as friends of God and servants of one another, to taste and see the wonder of God.

God invites us to know this love and taste this life in the bread and wine of the Lord's Table. Week after week in this holy meal God lavishes upon us the immeasurable riches of grace, the very presence of Christ Jesus, given, crucified and risen for us and for the whole world. Ah, here's the part we can eat! We take into our very bodies the gift of Christ, God's love made flesh, given to us that we might live. This is a foretaste of the feast to come.

"For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

That's it in a nutshell: News good enough to eat. Amen.

Let us pray:

O God, whose giving knows no end, We thank and praise you for the gift of your Son, Jesus. Through him so fill us with your life that we become signs in the world of your immeasurable grace and your everlasting love. In Christ's name, we pray. Amen.